Story and photographs by Timothy Gillis
A journey of a thousand (miles) starts beneath one’s feet. (from the Tao Te Ching)
The Tao Te Ching was written in the 6th century B.C.E. but its truths still hold fast today—perhaps never more so than for immigrant millennials trying to start their journeys into the modern marketplace. Every destination, no matter how far, starts with a single step. Incomer magazine spoke with three immigrant, millennial entrepreneurs about their individual journeys to Maine and the experiences they share despite taking different roads to get here.
Hye-Jung Fitzgibbon and Eunjee Park are both from Seoul, Korea, but they met here in Maine after traveling quite different roads. One came to the United States with a business plan all mapped out; the other one charted her moves as she made them.
In the end, they ran up against many of the same hurdles that other millennials do while pursuing happiness in a fast-paced business world with multi-talented contemporaries.
“그녀가 말하길 첫 사업을 계획하고 시작 하기 전 일년은 시장 조사와 사람들과의 만남을 위해 네일사’에 취업을 하‘ 되었습니다
그후 일단 사업 경험을 쌓기위해 작은 네일사’을 오픈 하‘ 되었습니다”
Fitzgibbon moved to Massachusetts twelve years ago where she met her future husband, Kevin, a South Portland native. Shortly thereafter, they moved here with their son, Daniel, and bought a house.
Fitzgibbon dreamed of moving to Maine and owning a beauty salon, but she was determined to first learn the business and build a network of clients. “I wanted to work for someone my first year here,” she said recently from HE Nail and Paint Bar in Portland, the salon she co-owns with Park. “I made good business connections in Portland and Falmouth. I started small to get experience first.”
Park moved to Portland ten years ago. While she loved her domestic life in Maine, she enjoyed her new work at Indulge Salon, where she met Fitzgibbon. She started out working there part-time, she said, “to get out of house, and then I liked it. I never had experience working. I was a full-time home wife.”
They next worked together at Anna Phillips where they made a plan to open their own business. They realized that their individual dreams could be realized easier if they put their energy and enthusiasm together. They inked the deal and the sentiment in 2018, naming their new salon HE Paint and Nail Bar after their first initials. The shopfront sign is a good indication of the connection the two share.
“It was a little challenge at first, with starting a business,” Fitzgibbon said. “But we have our regulars, and new customers come in all the time.”
Quang Nguyen has traveled a long way from Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, where his family raised sea bass and shrimp, to Portland, where he now casts his nets into local business waters. He experienced challenges similar to Fitzgibbon and Park. They all knew their success depended, in great part, on being able to take the lessons they learned at home and put them into practice in Maine.
“Life was great there,” Nguyen said of his childhood days. “It is a small city, mostly fishing and agriculture. It was known as a strategic seaport in World War II. My family raised sea bass and shrimp.” He fishes for sea bass here also, though Mainers call them “stripers.”
“Với một người mới nhập cư, bạn rất ít được trang bị đầy đủ kiến thức để vận hành một cơ sở kinh doanh mới.”
In 2007, Nguyen came to the United States as an international student bound for Portland. After a wrong turn in Oregon, he was redirected to the original.
He studied Business Administration at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, but found the adjustment difficult. “I barely spoke any English,” he recalled. “I learned by talking to people. The first six months were a challenge. I was too shy to speak. I learned the hard way to speak to people. I joined the honor society, the International Students’ Club, the Student Senate, and business clubs.”
He also worked part-time at SMCC in the Biology Department, helping them raise brown trout. He says he’s a decent cook, “but my mom is a lot better.” His parents, Hung Nguyen and Hoa Le, live in Portland. He has a brother named Minh who also lives here. His two youngest brothers, Chinh, 19, and Thang, 17, still live in Vietnam. “They stayed for school to get visas,” Nguyen says. “The goal is to come here with a visa and go to college.”
Nguyen graduated from college in 2010, worked at Veranda Thai for a year, and began looking for jobs in the financial or insurance field. He worked for an insurance company on commission, and then, in 2014, he purchased a nail salon in Windham called Star Nails. In 2015, he bought a multi-unit apartment in Portland, where he and his parents reside. In 2016, he bought Village Variety and renamed it Le Variety, after his maternal grandfather.
He credits his family’s influence on his success. When he moved to Maine, he quickly found out that the early risings—for both fish and fishermen—allowed for a packed day of work.
“I had to find out the proper way to do things,” he said when reflecting on his immigrant experience. “I took the necessary paperwork steps, then secured funding. As an immigrant, you’re not taught to know what you need to help with a new business.”
A prize catch came for Nguyen in November 2016 when he became an American citizen. It was a brief celebratory respite, and then he was quickly at it again. In 2016, he started Win Financial Strategies, named after the way his last name is pronounced. In 2018, he decided to share his youthful experiences with his newer neighbors and purchased Fisherman’s Net, a seafood market in Portland.
Nguyen, Fitzgibbon, and Park have set down stakes here in Portland, finding that challenge and success are often two sides of the same coin. That exchange rate does not deter them, however. They are ready to cash in.